In Grad School, we talked about Old Dead White Guys. It was short hand for the fact that the vast majority of books that we read were by white males who were distinctly older when the author’s picture was taken and who, by the time most people read them, were dead. They were typically from the upper reaches of society in terms of wealth, power or connections. There’s an older more direct way to put it: the victors write the history.
There are many problems with this. Even the proverbial Capitalist Pig would pick up on the obvious: white males just are not that big a slice of humanity. There’s a reality gap here… Business opportunity! Everyone else missed it! Woot! And he would then rush off to plan his conglomerate’s next subsidiary.
In less greedy terms, the brilliance of the vast majority of humanity has, until relatively recently, been effectively invisible. When I went to school, the old story was still holding on: the heroic Christopher Columbus and the ensuing wars to defend white settlers against attacks by Indians. Christopher Columbus was the proto-American who raised a fortune in royal venture capital and came in peace to the new world and, before his company tragically failed, hosted the world’s first series of international trade exhibitions at the Spanish Court.
That story changes significantly when you look at from the other side. When Europeans arrived, governments and countries had existed in the Americas for more than a Millennia. The Americans connected the continent with trade routes: international trade, particularly in luxury items, was old hat. The same thing is clear in religion, astronomy and so on through many areas: the Americas developed societies and cultures comparable to those in every other part of the world.
Those who followed Columbus invaded, conquered and destroyed hundreds of countries; destroyed much of the knowledge and thought discovered and developed over millennia by those original Americans; and through disease and warfare killed almost all of the original Americans.
Because we now talk about both sides of the story of Europeans arriving in America, it’s certainly become unfashionable to celebrate Christopher Columbus. He’s come to symbolize what happens when we only care about the story the victors tell, how we forget the rest. It’s said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. What happened in the Americas, is not some cultural equivalent of evolution through survival of the fittest. It’s the forgetting of art, thought, belief and very lives of the vanquished. There is no better way to guarantee history will not be known than to disappear it and destroy it. We discovered another part of our collective soul and then systematically destroyed it.
Christopher Columbus lead Europe into the Americas and we made him into the ultimate Old Dead White Guy. We even named a day after him. Perhaps, instead of forgetting him, we should remember him. He is the beginning of one the greatest examples of what we loose when everyone but the victor is disappeared, destroyed and forgotten.
Christopher Columbus is the ultimate accidental anti-hero. Instead of forgetting him from the holidays, we could tweak the name of the holiday. We need to a bit of anti-memorium and a hint of anti-lesson. We could do that just by adding to the name: Columbus was an Old Dead White Guy Day.